If there is one place that I am drawn to each time I visit Kabul, it is the awe inspiring Moghul garden called Bagh-e-Babur, which provide a safe and splendid haven in more ways than one and from which, we here in Pakistan, can learn much.The final resting place of the first Moghul Emperor, Babur, who enjoyed creating gardens wherever he went, Bagh-e-Babur is, after many years, now rapidly returning to its former glory thanks to the help of UNCHS Habitat and The Aga Khan Trust for Culture who, along with the Afghan government and the Afghan people themselves, have ensured that the gardens are restored in a manner as close to Babur’s original design as possible in the current day.Gardens and the designing of them, was one of the numerous peaceable pursuits of Babur who, actually being born in Uzbekistan, came to love Afghanistan and Kabul so much that he requested that he be buried here, in this favourite garden of his own making.Laid out in the sixteenth century, the six hectares of the garden on the western slopes of ‘Sher-i-Darwaza’ mountain, were, at one time, outside the city, but are now, as Kabul rises from the ashes of war, part and parcel of the city which surrounds them, in various forms, on all sides except one - the steep mountain slope directly behind - although houses are increasingly visible here too.I first visited Bagh-e-Babur back in 2004 when reconstruction work had just begun. But had yet to make any visible impression on the devastation suffered during factional fighting from 1992 and until the end of the Taliban regime in 2001: the still notorious warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar had, during the mujahideen occupation of Kabul, used the garden as a base from which to rain down rockets on the city and had, according to sources, located his heavy guns just slightly below the delicately beautiful Moghul mosque of Shah Jahan constructed in 1646 that, battle scarred and renovated, remains in daily use and is as stunningly beautiful as always. At that time, during my first visit, it was still necessary to be extremely wary of landmines and I and my companions tipped around, through wreckage and dust, very warily indeed!All has changed since then and the gardens are perfectly safe, have something like 500,000 visitors a year; the vast majority being Afghans who stream here daily to enjoy the picturesque sanctuary as it has now become and in which school children romp, families picnic, young men play carom in the shade of trees and women, often unaccompanied by male escorts, enjoy the freedom and peace knowing that if any kind of threat at all materialises, then there are guards around to ensure their safety.Bagh-e-Babur is now entered via the portals of the restored Caravanserai that houses, amongst other things, a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of carpets, antique and painted furniture, antique traditional clothes and jewellery and is a showcase for the fabled heart glassware that is now, thankfully, back in production and from the vast courtyard it surrounds, is access to the 15 terraces of the garden itself: these terraces rise, one upon the other, up the steep mountainside to where, on the fourteenth terrace, the tomb of Babur oozes dignity and commands attention. Emperor Babur died in Agra, India, in 1530, but had left instructions that his body be brought back here and that nothing should cover his grave so that the elements could beat down on it and wildflowers, another of his passions, take root. Due to internal family strife, the usual of who would succeed whom, his request was delayed. But his Afghan wife, Bibi Mubarika, eventually ensuring that his dying wish was granted. His tomb was exactly how he wanted it to be until first, during the seventeenth century, Emperor Jahangir had a marble headstone erected and then, during the short reign of King Nadir Shah, a marble slab was lain on the grave itself and this, in turn, was covered by a small pavilion.Babur’s tomb is, as he had wished, once more open to the skies, but is firmly enclosed, along with tombs of other family members, behind walls. The entrance gate is mostly, and unfortunately although no doubt there are reasons, kept locked although, if one searches for the custodian of the keys and finds him, he will, without a bribe, happily allow those who wish so to go in!The archaeological aspects of Bagh-e-Babur aside, the garden, filled with the most aromatic roses imaginable and the terraces laid out with all manner of fruit trees and flowering shrubs, is totally unlike any Pakistani garden/park in existence: there is no garbage lying around as people do use the bins provided, there is no noise as ghetto-blasters as, along with knives and guns it must be mentioned, they are not allowed. There are no signs warning people to stay off the grass as it is expected, even encouraged, that visitors will want to lounge in the grass in shady nooks beneath trees or, in cool weather, spread their picnic materials out on the grass in the sunshine. There are no gangs of Eve-teasers to make life a misery and relaxation impossible for the women and girls, who come here alone and the entire atmosphere is one of pleasurable enjoyment at whatever pace you chose to take it and, it is a shame, that we do not yet, perhaps never will, have such safe and secure retreats in this equally ancient country of our own.
The writer is author of The Gun Tree: One Woman’s War (Oxford University Press, 2001) and lives in Bhurban.Email: firstname.lastname@example.org